Meeting in Nome attempts to elucidate arctic policy goals

Coast Guard Cutter Healy crewmembers make contact with a mariner aboard his 36-foot sailboat trapped in Arctic ice approximately 40 miles northeast of Barrow, Alaska, July 12, 2014. Coast Guard 17th District watchstanders in Juneau were contacted by North Slope Borough Search and Rescue that a man, sailing his sailboat from Vancouver, Canada, to eastern Canada via the Northwest Passage, needed assistance after his vessel had become trapped in the ice. (Photo courtesy of Coast Guard Cutter Healy)

Coast Guard Cutter Healy crewmembers make contact with a mariner aboard his 36-foot sailboat trapped in Arctic ice approximately 40 miles northeast of Barrow, Alaska, July 12, 2014. Coast Guard 17th District watchstanders in Juneau were contacted by North Slope Borough Search and Rescue that a man, sailing his sailboat from Vancouver, Canada, to eastern Canada via the Northwest Passage, needed assistance after his vessel had become trapped in the ice. (Photo courtesy of Coast Guard Cutter Healy)

The Alaska Arctic Commission has been working for more than a year and a half to write the state’s first comprehensive arctic policy—a policy the commission hopes will lay out not just Alaska’s future, but America’s future, in the arctic. But with priorities ranging from international to extremely local, Tuesday’s meeting in Nome saw lawmakers, researchers, and coastal representatives still working out just what that policy will be.

The Alaska Arctic Commission is trying to balance far-reaching goals—from development and energy to international cooperation—to more immediate needs like ports, plumbing, and building strong rural economics and infrastructure for rural communities.

But with a four-page draft bill, a 15-page summary, and a 131-page report … the big question before the commission was summarized by Bethel co-chair, Representative Bob Herron.

“What should this policy commission say when we report to the legislature?”

Finalizing that message before the commission delivers its final report to lawmakers took up much of the meeting—with recaps of past meetings leading to passionate discussions on key issues … which often spiraled into broad discussions that rarely led to any clear conclusion.

What is clear is that the commission will deliver four broad “strategic recommendations” to the legislature. They include a renewed focus on the state’s “infrastructure gap;” a boost to arctic science and research; increased response capacity for a more active Arctic maritime environment; and a focus on sustainably developing arctic resources with an eye to Alaska’s unique cultural, social, and environmental needs.

Liz Qaulluq Moore, a community and government affairs director with NANA Regional Corporation who is the commissions’ ANSCA representative, says those four recommendations are necessarily broad.

“It is so big. It is really important. And I think we’ve been working towards this for many generations. The reason we’re seeing this bubble up to the surface now is because of the increased interest, right, we have a lot more marine traffic, all these larger questions. We talk a lot about resource development and the resources in the arctic. People want to be responsive to the immediate needs of marine transportation and offshore oil and gas development, we have to be prepared for those things.  So, you know, do we address those immediate needs? What are those longer-term visions? I think this is going to be a much longer-term discussion beyond just this commission.”

While the arctic policy will be far-reaching, residents of Nome addressed the commission to single out areas of specific concern. Melanie Bahnke, president of Kawerak, addressed concerns that the committee’s careful work could end up collecting dust on a bookshelf in Juneau—by urging lawmakers to take action.

“Many of your are in a position to ensure that some of your own recommendations are funded. So, fund it! Ensure Alaska Native people benefit economically. We bear the most risk with anything that’s going on in the arctic. So consider, what is the next 8-A opportunity? The next CDQ-like opportunity? When we’re provided with some opportunities we go from having a seat at the back of the bus, to learning how to drive the bus, to owning a fleet of buses.”

Senator Lyman Hoffman of Bethel sits on the commission, and admits the bill—and the report—won’t include any clear way to pay for the various projects the commission is recommending. But he says it *will give direction on how the state should spend its money down the road.

“It doesn’t open up the checkbook, it gives direction on how that checkbook can be spent. You know, so, if the legislature adopts the report, then they adopt the recommendations, then it’s incumbent upon the legislature to implement them.”

Commission members hope that implementation will have ramifications on the national and international scene. In 2015 the United States is poised to spend three years as chair of the international Arctic Council—a body of circumpolar nations focused on arctic issues.

Many commission members see Alaska’s plans for the arctic as the de facto plans for the nation—or at least influencing the nation’s arctic policy going forward. Here’s Anchorage Senator Lesil McGuire, the commission’s co-chair.

“We’ve sat back and waited for the federal government, which arguably should have an interest to begin that investment, and we just haven’t gotten anywhere.”

The Alaska Arctic Policy Commission continued its meeting on Kotzebue on Wednesday, with one more meeting in November to finalize its extensive report—and its far-reaching recommendations for the future of the arctic—before submitting it to Juneau for the state of the legislative session in January.

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